ncsa mosaic
August 22nd, 2014

What are YOU looking at?

Tom Boutell
Chief Software Architect

No, seriously. What web browser are you looking at?

We build websites. And like everyone who builds websites, we like to design and build sites for shiny new toys. Modern computers. Modern smartphones. Products with illuminated fruit on them.

So we need a reality check. Our websites have an audience, and that audience doesn't necessarily have the latest toys.

Kyle asked the right question: "what does Google Analytics say about our actual clients?"

I won't name names, but I dug into last months' figures for some of our clients. Some are heavily visited by the general public, others by a younger college-bound demographic.

I learned some interesting things:

  • Mobile is up to 20%-30% of traffic, and tablets are around 10%. The crossover point has not yet been reached, but we're close. It's a safe bet that most users look at a website on a mobile device at least some of the time. With 20-30% of traffic on mobile, we should never agree to build a website without mobile support as a cost-saving measureThe cost to our reputation is just not worth it.
  • Almost all mobile traffic is either Android or iOS. Windows Phone is barely on radar.
  • Desktop Safari is at 6%! It matters! This is the browser that ships with every Mac, after all.
  • Everyone knows that Chrome, Firefox, and the latest versions of IE are important, along with mobile browsers like Mobile Safari (on iPhones) and various flavors of Chrome on Android. But folks tend to ignore Safari. Developers assume it's "just like Chrome" because they share some code. Don't believe it; there are differences. Always test your sites in Safari.
  • Internet Explorer ranges from 10% to 20% of our audience. The broader the audience, the closer we get to 20%. Students skew to the low end. 
  • Internet Explorer 8 is at 2-4%... but it doesn't matter. Mostly. About half of these people are still on Windows XP, which is unsupported by Microsoft. So, sad to say, they probably already have malware on their computer at this point. They are probably miserable everywhere they go on the web. The best thing we could do for them would be to aggressively nudge them to upgrade their OS for security reasons. And we plan to start doing that.

That leaves the other half, the 1-2% of users who are running Internet Explorer 8 on Windows 7. These people should be encouraged to update their browser, which Microsoft has made very easy to do.

Still, for the general-audience sites where this number is highest, it may be appropriate to support IE8 as an optional line item.

In particular, folks browsing at work may be locked down to the version IE that came with their computer. Which limits productivity and negatively impacts the bottom line as employees struggle to use the web. But hey, who are we to argue with your IT department?

 So we level with our clients and explain that it typically costs about three days of a frontend developer's time to "downgrade" a site for IE8, depending on the site. And we let them decide.

Beginning in January 2016, Microsoft will only support the latest browser available for each version of Windows they support. After that, you'll be able to stop supporting old versions of Internet Explorer quicker. It's not ethical or safe to encourage people to use software that no longer gets security patches.

IE9 is also about 4%, but it does matter. Every one of these people is running a supported version of Windows (Vista or better). Their experience on the web is probably mostly good because major sites still support IE9. For now at least, IE9 support is close to being a requirement.

 

However, supporting IE9 does take some work, the percentage is small, and clients on a budget may decide to skip it or allow us to pursue "graceful degradation" in which the site is usable but unglamorous. For a typical site it's about half a day of a frontend developer's time.

 

IE11 is by far the most popular version. 40-50% of IE users are running IE11. Microsoft pushes users to upgrade, just like Firefox and Chrome do.  So we test heavily with Microsoft's latest browser. And we keep a real Windows machine handy to make sure our developers can experience a typical consumer Windows desktop, not just a virtual one.

 

That's what our world looks like today. I expect I'll post again next year, from a brave new world where IE8 isn't worth talking about. [Knocks on aluminum]

 

ncsa mosaic

NCSA Mosaic 2.0 web browser, circa 1995

Tom Boutell
Chief Software Architect

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